Ford's CTO on robotaxis, delivery bots and automotive disruptions

Agility Robotics
Agility Robotics bipedal delivery robot.

Adapted from the newsletter Transport Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here

A coiled-up robot descends from the back of a van, stretches out its legs, rests its two feet on the sidewalk and starts to slowly approach your front door holding a cardboard box. It's either a scene from a horror movie or the latest experiment with delivery bots. 

Last week, automaker Ford announced that it is partnering with Agility Robotics, a startup that makes two-legged robots that can help humans on the battlefield, in disaster zones or across the last mile. Ford is pairing its autonomous vehicle tech with Agility Robotics' bipedal robot "Digit" in a research project that might help inform Ford's planned robotaxi service set to launch in 2021. 

Ford unveiled this fun tech project a couple of days after some more somber news: The company plans to lay off 10 percent of its white-collar, salaried workforce — that means about 7,000 Ford employees will lose their jobs by the summer. Technology is transforming the auto industry even as companies such as Ford attempt to use tech to evolve, compete and survive. 

To get a better handle on what Ford wants with delivery robots, I jumped on the phone with Ford Chief Technology Officer Ken Washington. He's responsible for overseeing all of Ford's tech development across electrification, autonomous, connected, advanced materials and even additive manufacturing. Here are five takeaways from our chat:

  • Data: A big part of what Ford is developing in relation to Digit is how Ford's self-driving vehicle tech will share data with it. Ford's autonomous vehicle has sensors on it, and when Digit wakes up on the scene of a pickup or delivery, the robot already has received data about the environment from the vehicle. That enables the robot to have an "informed view," Washington said.
  • Delivery: Ford sees autonomous vehicles as a way to open up new business models, and Washington said Ford wants to help solve "the last 50-foot problem." In a couple of years the company plans to launch a robotaxi business and in theory, this last-mile tech one day might be deployed through that program. But Washington said it's still too early to declare if bipedal robots will be part of Ford's go-to-market robotaxi strategy.
  • Disruption: I asked him how challenging it is to prioritize tech R&D while the company is planning layoffs. Washington said: "This is part of the reality of a business that’s being disrupted and changed by the promise and potential of new technology." And: "When you're dealing with a world that's changing, you have to change with it."
  • Digit: Why does a robot need legs? Ford has explored rolling robots but "a lot of things could be in between the curb and the door," such as a soccer ball or a trash can, Washington said. The program's promo video shows the robot stepping around an errant scooter tossed on the sidewalk.
  • Disturbing (aka the creepy robot issue): The promo video also shows Digit walking past a mom and daughter duo who smile and barely bat an eyelash at the headless machine that strolls by. In reality, a passerby might do any number of things upon encountering a walking delivery bot, such as laugh uncomfortably or try to kick it over. Washington said that the design of the robot is very important. Ford liked what Agility Robotics has done around making Digit look sort of like a human but not too much like a human. "It's clearly a robot and not a scary robot," Washington said.